'Herd Immunity' Theory
Initially, Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed that the most effective way to truncate the long-term consequences of the pandemic was to allow the virus to spread naturally throughout the population in order to build up a kind of collective "herd immunity".
Restaurants, schools, theatres, clubs, and sporting venues across the UK kept their doors open and only over-70s with symptoms of the flu were told to stay at home in a campaign which seemed to contrast the authoritative measures in China, South Korea, and Italy.
While government ministers invoked an effective "spirit of the Blitz" response and urged to "keep calm and carry on", the approach was widely criticised for being cold and even led to accusations of malthusian-inspired negligence.
Research from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Modelling at the Imperial College published on Monday revealed that the likely impact of pursuing a delay strategy as opposed to the “suppression” approach taken in other countries would likely result in hundreds of thousands dying and eventually overwhelming the health service.
The scientists concluded that despite likely having to be in place for an extremely long time, delaying the spread is probably the riskier option.
Jens Lundgren, Professor of Infectious Diseases, Copenhagen University says Boris Johnson has got it wrong in his rush for 'herd immunity'.#Newsnight @LBC #bbcaq #bbcqt #r4today #c4news #PoliticsLive pic.twitter.com/itFpHNGzoh— I Am Incorrigible FCA (@ImIncorrigible) March 12, 2020
Confusion with regard to the government's actual position soon led to demands for Falklands-style daily briefings. Trains and social venues have become less crowded but this is largely due to public initiative as opposed to government leadership.
Ultimately, the government announced that Johnson would hold daily press briefings on the COVID-19 situation.
Day One: Social Distancing
In Boris Johnson's first daily briefing on Monday he "strongly advised" the public to take precautionary measures including:
- Recognising that the economy would be dealt "a severe blow" over the virus outbreak.
- Urging everyone to "socially distance" - avoiding gatherings with friends and family, and to refrain from unnecessary social contact in pubs, clubs, and theatres.
- Avoiding non-essential travel and work from home if possible.
- Stop visiting vulnerable friends and relatives care homes if not essential.
- Only using the NHS when absolutely necessary to reduce the burden on medical staff and seek advice on the NHS website in place of calling 111 when possible
- Telling those with serious health conditions to avoid social contact for around 12 weeks.
- If a single member of a household has symptoms such a persistent cough or fever, everyone living in that home should stay put for 14 days and avoid leaving the house "even to buy food or essentials".
- Schools would not be shut due to the fact that children were the least likely to develop harsh symptoms.
Second Briefing: Mitigating Economic Impact
On the second day the prime minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a guarantee of £330 billion in business loans as part of an “unprecedented” package of financial support to keep the British government afloat as the crisis develops.
"We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy", Johnson said.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser said that the social-distancing measure could last for months.
This briefing came as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab advised against all non-urgent travel abroad for up to 30 days.
The Department for Work and Pensions also announced in a budget on Wednesday that individuals diagnosed with coronavirus "or those unable to work because they are self-isolating in line with government advice” would receive statutory sick pay.
For those who are self-employed or those earning below £118 per week, the government announced that they would be making it easier to claim the Universal Credit or Contributory Employment and Support Allowance.
School's Out for Spring & Summer
On Wednesday, during the third press briefing, Johnson declared that he had made the decision to shut schools across the country from 19 March onwards, with the exception of children of essential workers such as medical services and police.
Nurseries and private schools will also follow the government's directives alongside state schools.
All GCSE and A Level exams in May and June were cancelled.
After schools shut their gates from Friday afternoon, they will remain closed for most pupils - for the vast majority of pupils - until further notice.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) March 18, 2020
Read more here: https://t.co/C5RaaQPGnQ pic.twitter.com/5jMgPXxDML
The announcement followed statements by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams that schools in Scotland and Wales would close.
Interest Rates Hit An All-Time Low
On Thursday, the Bank of England (BoE) announced that £200 billion worth of government and corporate bonds would be purchased and interest rates cut to 0.1 percent.
The move comes just a week after the BoE cut rates from 0.75% to 0.25% in an initial attempt to curb economic fallout from the virus.
A Potential Lockdown?
While Downing Street has so far only "strongly advised" that people socially distance, the prime minister said he would be willing to impose more stringent measures to protect people’s health and NHS services.
London is ahead of every other region in the country in terms of how widespread the virus has become with 953 cases of coronavirus being confirmed in the capital alone, nearly a third of the national total.
It was revealed on Wednesday that the Cabinet Office was working with Whitehall departments to develop a “shielding plan for London”, which could see transport and businesses closed after the government's advice had not reduced social gatherings and mass travel as had been hoped.
Tube in London this morning - it’s like there’s no pandemic. I’m sure not everyone here is a key worker. Companies want their staff to come in and staff obviously don’t want to lose their jobs or money. pic.twitter.com/1Nr5lbdOmc— leanahosea (@leanahosea) March 19, 2020
Transport for London (TfL) on Thursday announced that there would be a "partial shutdown" of the tube network and up to 40 stations on the London Underground would be closed.
Changes to our services— Transport for London (@TfL) March 19, 2020
To support critical workers we’re running a reduced service #COVID19
Everyone’s urged not to use public transport for anything other than essential journeys
👉 Keep informed by checking our dedicated coronavirus webpagehttps://t.co/X7IevIZMSj pic.twitter.com/3YlBO9itrr
In his fourth press briefing, Boris Johnson reiterated the advice to maintain the social distancing measures, acknowledging that the response had been "patchy" in parts of London and that “nothing is ruled out” if people do not heed government warnings in their attempts to stop the spread of the virus.
The government has been criticised for not testing widely enough, in the face of the World Health Organisation's advice to conduct rigorous testing of the population and identify the virus.
Only those who are hospitalised are currently subject to routine testing for COVID-19 and the government plans to ramp up the number of tests to 10,000 a day, with the goal of hitting 25,000 tests daily within four weeks.
The UK is also pursuing "hundreds of thousands" of new testing kits that can detect antibodies produced by those who have or have had the virus.
"We are in negotiations to buy a simple antibody test - as simple as a pregnancy test - that will tell if people have had coronavirus", Johnson announced in the Friday press briefing.
How Bad is The Spread?
As of the latest figure updates on Thursday, there are 3,269 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK and 144 patients who tested positive have died.